BEIJING (AP) — Venezuela’s basketball team hopes to send some good news back to a country suffering through economic sanctions and a political crisis that has forced millions to flee in recent years.
The mission starts Saturday in Beijing when Venezuela faces Poland on the opening day of the basketball World Cup in China.
Venezuela made it to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics three years ago, only its second Olympic appearance. The World Cup in China could be an avenue to help Venezuela advance again. But it’s a long shot.
“We’re always going to be the underdog,” Venezuela forward Michael Carrera said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We don’t worry about that. Nobody is expecting us go to into the next round. But anything can happen.”
Venezuela won only one of its five games at the Olympics, but that lone victory was against China. That will inspire confidence with China, Ivory Coast and Poland in Venezuela’s wide-open group.
There are eight, four-team groups scattered at eight venues across China with the top two teams advancing from each group to the second round.
“We love being in the shadows,” Carrera said.
Venezuela will also be trying to beat a European team for the first time in an official game. In this case, Poland.
“Venezuela is a battle-tested team,” said Mike Taylor, Poland’s American-born coach. “They play with tremendous energy and physicality. They like to impose physicality on the opponent.”
China will have a powerful home-court advantage playing at the Wukesong Arena, which was built for the 2008 Olympics. It has since been renamed the Cadillac Arena. It will also be the venue for the World Cup semifinals and final.
“Looking back at the 2008 Olympics, we look at this as our Olympics,” said Yi Jianlian, the only player from China’s 2008 team still playing at the World Cup. “We want to look at this tournament as the same thing, as our basketball World Cup.”
Neither China nor Venezuela will be among the favorites this time with the United States, Serbia, Greece, Australia and France probably in that role. The majority of the Americans’ best players are sitting out the World Cup, creating a balanced field at the top.
Carrera said he was playing three years ago at the University of South Carolina and could only watch the Rio Olympics on television. This time he could be there if Venezuela qualifies for Tokyo.
“That would be awesome, something to dream about,” Carrera said.
Venezuela is again led by power forward Nestor Colmenares, who scored 16 points in Venezuela’s 72-68 victory over China in Rio de Janeiro.
If Venezuela pulls off a few upsets in China, it won’t be the first time. They stunned Canada and Argentina in 2015 in Mexico to reach the Olympics, playing against two teams sporting lots of NBA talent.
“We know that we are lacking the resources and the players to be able to compete at the very top level,” team spokesman Luis Vargas said. “But we have a very tough defensive team and their spirit makes the impossible, possible.”
Venezuela coach Fernando Duro said the biggest problem is preparation and the fact there is little competitive basketball being played at home. Seven of the players are off one club team — Guaros de Lara.
“Right now the internal problem is that basketball is not mobilized in the country,” Duro said. “Let’s hope this World Cup helps Venezuelan basketball to develop.”
Carrera said players try to block out the crisis at home. And he repeated over and over “one game at a time, one game at a time.”
“Of course,” Carrera said, “we would love to give all Venezuelans — it doesn’t matter what color, what side of the government — some happiness to all the people back there.”
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